Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah saw his Dakar Rally hopes crushed on Thursday when he was kicked off the grueling event that had already been scarred by the controversy surrounding the death of a competitor.
The BMW driver, who won the first and third stages and led the overall standings by more than seven minutes, skipped nine mandatory way points as his car threatened to overheat on the shortened 178km run from San Rafael. South Africa’s Giniel De Villiers, who was second on the day, was promoted to stage winner and inherited the overall lead ahead of the race making its way into Chile.
The rules of the race state that each way point missed — up to four — leads to a two-hour penalty; a fifth in succession means exclusion. Al Attiyah’s premature exit came just hours after 2006 champion Luc Alphand withdrew when his co-driver fell ill.
Organizers, who switched the race to South America after last year’s edition was canceled because of terrorist fears in Africa, were also under scrutiny after the death of French motorcyclist Pascal Terry. The 49-year-old died after the fourth stage from cardio-respiratory failure, but a high-ranking police officer claimed he could have been saved had he been rescued in time.
Al Attiyah, the reigning rally-raid world champion, went into Thursday’s stage with a 2 minute, 24 second lead over Volkswagen driver De Villiers, who came home 5 minutes, 7 seconds behind the Qatari.
“We missed a way point. Due to the engine overheating, we couldn’t go through the dunes. The temperature rose to 120 degrees,” Al Attiyah said before his exclusion. “The engine stopped and I preferred to choose a different route and avoid the dunes. We missed a way point before reaching CP1. When we push too hard, the engine temperature gets too high.”
De Villiers admitted he was happy with his race, despite a few early problems.
“It was quite tricky in the beginning in the dunes. A few times we had to turn around because we couldn’t make it up some dunes. In some places it was very soft,” the Volkswagen driver said.
Alphand’s decision to pull out dealt another blow to defending champions Mitsubishi. The Frenchman gave up when co-driver Gilles Picard became ill at the 12km stage as their car became stuck in mud. Alphand’s withdrawal followed that of Mitsubishi teammate Hiroshi Masuoka, the winner in 2002 and 2003, who was forced out after the first stage when his vehicle developed engine trouble.
Defending champion Cyril Despres clinched the motorcycle stage. The Frenchman, who was also the 2005 winner, finished 2 minutes, 9 seconds ahead of overall leader Marc Coma of Spain, with Jordi Viladoms, also of Spain, 5 minutes, 15 seconds back.
In the overall standings, Coma leads Jonah Street of the US by 40 minutes, 29 seconds, with France’s David Fretigne in third 47 minutes, 30 seconds back.
Thursday’s stage was shortened from 394km to 178km after just 230 of the 410 vehicles involved made the connection after the punishing fifth stage on Wednesday, that also witnessed the withdrawal of more than 30 vehicles. A flooded river ford also meant the stage had to be trimmed.
Meanwhile, the ramifications of Terry’s death were still being felt as his family flew out to Argentina with a local police chief criticizing a breakdown in communication.
“Officially, the result of the autopsy revealed that the French rider Terry died of pulmonary edema ... which produced cardio-respiratory failure,” Julio Acosta, chief of the department of operations of La Pampa provincial police, told news agency Telam. “He could have been saved, if he had been rescued in time.”